Love is God’s nature and project

When we study something, we try and understand it. But who can understand God loving the world? How can we talk about God giving his only Son to us? And who can understand a Saviour needing to die as he did to save us (John 3:15-16)?

But we need to know these things. God loves us. And his love is not mere posturing, or experimenting. He knows what is needed and sees that it’s done.

Here’s some pointers about the death of Jesus as a work of love—from Jesus and then the apostles. (I’ll use ‘the cross’ as shorthand for all that happens when Jesus is crucified.)

First, the cross shows that love is God’s project before it is ours.

It may sound cheap to talk about God’s ‘project’, but I do so because Jesus comes with a purpose, and before he dies, he announces, ‘It is finished’. He says he came that we may have a full life (John 10:10). This must mean he will teach us to love because it is where we love that we actually live.

But love is a ‘God thing’ (1 John 4:7). It begins with him. But it also is him. He doesn’t need our loveliness, or even our need, to attract him. He just loves.

If, on the other hand, we imagine that love is our nature and project, we begin to unravel—personally and socially.

Can we create a society that is good and loving? Indications are that we can’t. If we imagine it to be so, our insights shrink until we only see what pleases us. And our horizons shrink until they only include the people we agree with.

But what God does through the cross is a power that creates love. It’s an action we need to live in. Jesus’ death constrains us to love—that is, it encloses us on both sides and moves us from behind into all that life now can be (2 Cor. 5:14).

Second, the cross shows love is God’s priority

It’s easy to give first place to getting things done or accumulating whatever makes us feel secure. But Jesus is putting his life on the line for love. Everything else can come or go, but not love. Here’s some things he says just before he dies (all quoted from John’s Gospel).

He will love his people ‘to the end’ (13:1). He wants us to love him (14:24). He will go to the cross so the world will know he loves his Father God (14:31). This is his first love. He knows the Father’s love for him and that’s how he loves his disciples. This is where he wants us to live as well—in his love (15:9).

He prays that the love he receives from the Father will also be in his disciples (17:22, 26). He wants us to love one another like he does (13:34; 15:13). And he knows none of this will ever happen unless he dies.

Jesus has already told us that the greatest call on our humanity is to love God and to love one another (Mark 12:28-31). Now, he will do just that. If we’re not interested in love, we can let Jesus pass without a thought. But if love is the way to live, and if it’s what we want, we need to know what happens when Jesus dies.

Third, the cross shows love is not deserved.

Jesus is the ‘friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34). So-called ‘righteous’ people don’t need his help (Mark 2:16-17).

Paul helps us think about this (Romans 5:6-10). We are weak. That’s about as low as you can get—someone without the power to be properly human. Then we are ungodly—we coast around as though the world doesn’t need a Creator, let alone a Saviour. And then, we are sinners—we just don’t ‘get it’ and constantly miss what we are supposed to do.

That’s where we are when Jesus dies for us. We are not lovely people. God is saying, ‘Look at me. What kind of God am I?’ He is asking us to think about whether his love is real or not.

Jesus gets closer to us than we can get to ourselves. The thought of us being wrong, polluted, unlovely and arrogant doesn’t fit easily into our thinking. Jesus sees all of that in us and still says, ‘I want to be with you. I’ll wear what you are. I’ll suffer what you deserve.’

And he also says, ‘I’ll give you all that I am so you can be pure before my Father, and before your Father.’

Fourth, the cross destroys love’s enemy—fear.

What kills love is not busyness or difficult people. It’s threat and shame. Jesus lovingly does something about this. He is sent to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin—a propitiation (1 John 4:10). He needs to turn the wrath of God away from us, and does so by bearing it himself.

We’ve noted that there’s something deeply built into us that wants to make love our project. But love is ‘of God’. He is where it comes from and why it works (1 John 4:7-12).

Because Jesus so comprehensively endures God’s wrath, there is no fear of it touching us. We no longer need to fear meeting God (1 John 4:17-18). Love and fear don’t belong together. But, if fear is gone, love can thrive!

John explains this by saying, ‘as Jesus is, so are we in this world.’ In other words, Jesus is in heaven. We are on the earth. But we are as he is.

Think about what this means. There was a time when Jesus was in torment—on his cross. He could not say ‘Father’ as he usually did. He said, ‘My God. Why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). He is in torment.

But then, he announces that his work is finished (John 19:30), and entrusts his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). And God raises him from the dead. He raises him to sit by his side to administer the kingdom. His torment is over. This is how he is now. And we—in this world—are as he is.

Our torment is over. Love has begun. ‘God abides in us and we are made perfect in love’. This is not about us being perfect in love, but about God’s love being perfected or coming to its goal in us. He is confident that his work will bear fruit and cause us to love.

Lastly, the cross creates something entirely new.

To see the cross as God’s revelation and gift of love is to be a new person. Love is not strange to us now. One man dies for all. So, that is the end of all we have been. What happens from now on is all new—made by God (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). Life comes to us, and sometimes, at us, with many difficulties. But the cross is our assurance that nothing that ever happens around, or to us, will separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).

Friendship is all about other people

The story goes of a man coming home from a party saying, ‘I was surrounded by friends, but none of them were mine.’ Many people experience loneliness—including some who appear to be ‘the life of the party’.

These experiences demonstrate that loneliness isn’t mended with company. In the real world, having friends involves thinking—thinking about others.

Perhaps this is why many have experienced amazing community spirit when a catastrophe strikes—a flood or fire or accident. Everyone focusses on what needs to be done and forgets about themselves. They begin to ‘discover’ each other.

So, here’s the real issue. If we are only thinking of ourselves, there’s no real relationship going on. The other person is only ‘present’ to the extent that they are meeting a need of mine. They may be thinking the same. Neither of us are being real. We are like ghosts trying to hug each other.

A relationship with someone else is not just a matter of chemistry, or sex, or common interest. It involves love, and this means seeing who someone is and what they need—thinking about them and how we may be a part of their lives.

Paul tells his friends at Philippi to think of others and not just themselves, and consider others better than themselves.

That’s good advice but it’s easier said than done. Selfishness runs deep and takes us back to thinking about ourselves. That’s why Paul points to how Christ has lived among us (Philippians 2:1-11).

It would be worthwhile reading some Gospel stories about Jesus. People called him a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). That’s what we need—not someone who expects high standards, conformity, or agreement but a friend who knows who we are, what we can become and what help we need.

And the first need we have is to be forgiven. We don’t merely need people we can follow, or who like us. We need a Saviour. We need Christ’s encouragement, comfort, tenderness and compassion.

We need to belong to a whole group of people participating in a love that’s bigger than all the funny things that go on between us people. We need to be God’s children—together.

Believe me, what we read here fixes the problem. We have a quality of life that doesn’t depend on our friends being friendly or us being perfect! There’s something different that happens among people who receive forgiveness from God, and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Paul also says we need to put away selfish ambition or conceit (v. 3). In business circles, people talk about ‘networking’—finding relationships that may further their interests. But that’s not friendship. Friends aren’t concerned with their own interests but the interest of their friend.

In fact, we are called to consider others better than ourselves (v. 4). This is nothing to do with us being better or worse than others. We are talking about considering others better than ourselves.

So, is all of this just a game? Do we just act in a certain way because that will make other people feel happier with us? Hardly. That’s hypocrisy, and eventually, hypocrisy shows!

Here’s why it’s so important to know how Jesus thinks. He has been thinking about us—not himself. And because he is thinking about us, we can be freed from always focusing on ourselves. We can have the same thought in our minds as Jesus Christ.

How can this be? Stay with this! It might seem like I’m trying to crack a problem with a heavy thump of Bible, but thinking about ourselves doesn’t yield easily!

The way Jesus thinks starts with him being equal with God. He is God. But he doesn’t think this fact needs to be defended. He doesn’t need to protect his rights or have his identity acknowledged. Simply—he’s God. He knows it. And he acts accordingly.

Here’s what he does. He ‘made himself nothing’. That is, he pours out all that he is—for us.

The Son of God becomes one of us—a human being. As God, he is in charge. But, as a human being, he is told what to do. He’s become a servant.

Then, the job he is given is to show us who God is. So, he shows us the ‘comfort of his love’, his ‘tenderness and compassion’.  

It’s because we don’t know this that we have to protect ourselves. This is why we have to be surrounded with approving people. We’re not persuaded that God is friendly.

So, Jesus makes himself an offering for our sins. He’s already a servant, but he becomes a humble one and does the most despicable job you could ever take on. He’s nailed to a Roman cross. In our place.

This is the mind of Christ. He has come closer to us that we can come to ourselves. By being what he is—God, doing a human job—he’s shown us what it means to be human. He’s also shown us what it means to be God.

And then, Jesus is given the name above every name—that’s the name ‘Lord’, or God. There’s never been any risk of him losing his identity!

And there’s no risk of us losing our identity either when we think fondly about people around us—in just the same way we think about ourselves. If we’ve been united with Christ through faith, we have his encouragement, his tenderness and compassion.

So now, we are free to live, to love, to give and to share. It will seem risky. Sometimes, we may lose a friend rather than gain one. But we will always have Christ’s friendship.

Surely and certainly, we will discover the riches of relationships that flow from a reliable source—from no less than the God who made us to be like him.